Crime fighting duo seeks Kenya's first top-level graft conviction

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Noordin Haji, head of public prosecutions in Kenya, is the urbane son of one of the country’s most prominent families. George Kinoti, born in the slums, rose from burly beat cop to head the powerful police investigation department.

Together, they are building corruption cases against top Kenyan officials. This week, the finance minister and other officials were charged with financial misconduct, marking the first time police have arrested a sitting finance minister in an east African nation notorious for graft.

Both men credit their success in part to an unlikely friendship forged while working together in the field.

“Prosecutors and investigators never worked together, but since me and Kinoti came into office that has changed,” Haji told Reuters at his Nairobi office, where leather-bound law books and the graceful arabesques of Islamic art line the walls.

“We do have a personal relationship as friends,” said the trim, silver-haired 46-year-old, appointed director of public prosecutions (DPP) last August. “We are able to sit down and agree without having turf wars.”

The first big case the two worked on together last year was the alleged theft of nearly $100 million from the National Youth Service. Kinoti hand-picked officers he could trust to work on the case, Haji said.

Prosecutors charged 43 suspects, including a principal secretary, the most senior career bureaucrat in a ministry. The case against them is still ongoing, but five banks have already been fined nearly $4 million for failing to report suspicious transactions.

Not everyone from the police and prosecutor’s offices liked working together, said Haji. Those who didn’t were edged aside.

“We had to build a team that would gel,” he said.

Kinoti, who bears the scars of numerous shoot-outs – including one where gangsters left him for dead – said police were willing to work with Haji because of his experience and demeanor, honed during 18 years in the Kenyan intelligence service. Unlike most senior officials, Haji never stood on ceremony, he said.

“He’s the first DPP I can say who is a polished field officer … He knows the pains we undergo in the field,” said Kinoti, 51. “He’s so humble … It has won all my officers.”

HISTORIC CORRUPTION

Such pronouncements may be met with scepticism from Kenya’s embattled anti-corruption campaigners, who have seen years of official promises to tackle graft come to nothing while police clubbed and gased demonstrators demanding change.

“The superlatives are flowing fairly thick, and we’ve been here many times before,” said prominent campaigner John Githongo.

President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to tackle graft when he was elected in 2013, but results have been slow. Corruption continues to drag down economic growth and investor confidence.

Officials are wary of quantifying the total loss, but a former head of the government’s anti-graft watchdog told Reuters in 2016 that around $6 billion, a third of the annual state budget, was lost to graft in Kenya every year.

Githongo said the charges against Finance Minister Henry Rotich, which stem from an investigation into the misuse of funds in two dam projects, were a good first step. He noted Kinoti has a reputation as a courageous and honest cop.

After he was appointed head of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in January 2018, Kinoti swiftly disbanded the Flying Squad, a unit formed to combat robberies and car-jackings but accused of orchestrating them.

“They thought robberies (on the roads) would rise,” laughed Kinoti. “Instead they stopped!”

Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Noordin Haji and Kenya’s Director of Criminal investigations (DCI) George Kinoti walk after a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya December 8, 2018. Picture taken December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

For three months, Kinoti said, his phone buzzed with influential Kenyans seeking to present discreet gifts. But, mindful of the Catholic priests who raised him, he filled his office with crucifixes and refused to pick up.

THEFT AND BLOOD

Haji trained as a lawyer, but after a short stint as state counsel in the attorney general’s office he moved to the National Intelligence Service. He worked undercover against Islamist militants and before becoming deputy director for organized crime.

That’s where he began working with Kinoti, he said, supplying him intelligence for investigations into organized crime. Haji said he was impressed with Kinoti’s work ethic and hands-on management.

Both men understand that corruption kills, he said. It helped al Shabaab militants kill 21 people at the Riverside office and hotel complex in January. They bought fake car license plates, and some had multiple identity cards, Haji said.

He has seen bloodshed like that firsthand. He was among the shoppers who barricaded themselves into bathrooms when al Shabaab stormed the Westgate mall in 2013, killing 67 civilians.

Haji called his boss to feed him information about the weapons they were using, but said the response was problematic because Kenya’s security agencies weren’t working well together.

Security footage showed soldiers looting shops as dead civilians lay in pools of blood. No one has been fired or prosecuted for the looting.

“Corruption exacerbates everything,” Haji said, his face falling into the stern lines familiar from press conferences. “It made the terrorists able to exploit our witnesses in Kenya very easily. It let criminals operate with impunity.”

He became prosecutions chief because he was tired of observing problems with no chance to fix them, he said.

“With intelligence … you can only advise or warn,” he said. “You don’t have the executive powers.”

MINISTER CHARGED

Kenyan ministers have been charged before. A former water minister was accused of abuse of office in 2010. The investigating body was disbanded; he died in bed aged 77.

In 2015, two former finance ministers were charged after hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to foreign companies, including the British firm Anglo Leasing Finance, for services ranging from passports to naval ships and forensic laboratories. Nothing was delivered. The court cases are still ongoing.

Government officials say such cases are complex, the courts overburdened and evidence often tampered with. Campaigners say it’s a matter of political will.

Kinoti and Haji hope for a quicker resolution to the case against Rotich and 25 others, including an Italian construction boss.

A specialized anti-corruption court is now hearing the case, although other judges had delayed the investigation, Kinoti said. “They refused us warrants,” he said. “By the time we are succeeding, the documents have … disappeared.”

Haji said such delays should be less of a problem when 15 more anti-corruption courts become operational by the end of the year.

Both men say they are working on several more high profile cases. On Friday, Haji ordered the arrest of Ferdinand Waititu, governor of the wealthy Kiambu county on the outskirts of Nairobi, for abuse of office, conflict of interest and dealing with suspect property. Haji announced nine other people would also face charges. 

Slideshow (3 Images)

Many Kenyans, however, won’t believe there’s a war on graft until they see top officials in jail, said Boniface Mwangi, an anti-corruption campaigner who has been arrested more times than he can remember.

“We’ve seen high-level arrests,” he said. “Give us convictions, and then we will start to celebrate.”

Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Giles Elgood

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